OBE in South Africa — How Badly it Affected the Education of Children

The OBE (Outcomes Based Education) syllabus was introduced as the main stream syllabus in South Africa in the late 90’s and was only outdone around 2009. This syllabus was used in many other countries before, during, and after the time it was used in South Africa; including Australia, European Union, Hong Kong, America and many more. Like any school syllabus, it had its positives and negatives. However, with South Africa being a developing country, in some instances the negatives outweighed the positives. I shall discuss this in detail, including first-hand experience.


The OBE syllabus took effect in South Africa in 1997. This was only 3 years into democratic rule of the country. Schools and classes were interracial for the first time. This meant that African and Coloured children were placed in schools that had previously only been attended by White children. Apartheid had had a major effect on non-white race citizens in not only living and social conditions but also in education; children went to schools that were not able to adequately teach them as compared to schools for White children. This left them far less ‘educated’ than the White population of the country.

Early Phase Of Introduction:

The grade 1 class of 1997 was a low point in the education system of the country. Children of non-white race were placed into schools with no prior knowledge of the alphabet, reading, math or general knowledge skills. This meant that the main aim of the grade was to introduce and teach the basics in order to accommodate them. They were taught the alphabet, simple citing and pasting skills, three piece puzzles showing the human body and so on. This was a huge learning step for these students and teachers would often have to linger on each section until they had fairly grasped them.

This made learning extremely slow and tedious. However, it was not only non-white children that were hindered by this. White children, had had access to pre-schools that taught these basic skills. These children entered grade one with the expectation of learning more complex things, such as reading and math. To enter this level of education grade was, at best, frustrating and confusing. Having to repeatedly do something as basic as learning the alphabet led to many becoming dissatisfied with school, and therefore losing all interest, as well as annoyance and resentment towards the less ‘educated’ students.

From the start this form of education was showing more negative than positive results and unfortunately the problems did not stop there, over the years they simply became worse.

Problems With Syllabus Intensifies:

One of the aspects of the OBE syllabus was that it contained a large part of projects, assignments, and tests. This meant that a significant amount of research, resources and insight was needed. These elements were only increased and focused on as the years of primary school passed.

This proved to be a major obstacle for children raised in less-privileged households. The only access these children had in order to collect research for projects was the local public library. Unfortunately during those times, public libraries were hesitant or simple flat out refused to aid these children. They would not allow information books and encyclopaedias to be checked out by these children, a membership was needed to check out any books in fact. These children were however not able to obtain a membership as often an initial cost was needed to open one or proof of residences etc. were needed. Children from low income homes could not afford the membership fee and parents attempts at getting proof of residence ship proved nearly impossible. The only way children were able to get information was to sit in the library for lengthy amounts of times copy writing the sections of information they found in books or sheets of paper they had to bring themselves. This was a highly unpractical method as they could only obtain meagre amounts of information and not even able to copy pictures, which was a set requirement in all the projects.

Teachers were not at all understanding and would mark their projects down due to no pictures being present and would scoff at the meagre amount of information set out. Teachers would ridicule these students publicly in class accusing them for ‘not trying hard enough’; ‘being lazy’ and the like. This was a constant embarrassment for these children. To add to their misery, teachers would give bonus points to White children who had ‘beautifully set out’ projects with many pictures, set out smartly with decorations and an abundance of information. They were easily praised for their ‘hard work’ and ‘diligence’ in their projects. Teachers unfortunately simply did not understand or concern themselves with the fact that such projects were not vastly contrasting due to ‘diligence’ or ‘laziness’ but in fact privilege and access to resources or lack thereof.

In group projects teachers would assign children to groups and when a group consisted of all privileged or non-privileged children, a vast contrast of well set out projects and minimal projects were plain to see. When children from both social classes were combined, unprivileged children would be unable to assist in the project or ‘do their part’. This led to the privileged students in the group ‘doing all the work’ and an atmosphere of anger and annoyance always followed. When the teacher was informed of this, the less fortunate students were severely reprimanded and were often given a 0 mark for the project due to their ‘lack of effort’.

A gloomy education system was set.

Personal experience:

I was raised in a family that was practically nomadic. I would rarely finish an entire school year in the same school, so that I would come into a new school from anything from the second term, mid-year, or last term. My family social class was also on the lower class. These projects or assignments were, at best, an extremely bad experience.

All of my class teachers, new and old, had the same set mentality; there was no such excuse of privilege in projects, it was simply an issue of effort put in or lack thereof. I was often times in the same circumstances as the lower class students who were collectively ridiculed, or worse, was solely pointed out and ridiculed if I had the unfortunate fate of being placed in a group where I was solely of the lower class compared to the rest being of middle or upper class.

These teachers were more than not in the social middle class and simply did not understand or accept that social class could be a determining factor in a school assignment. Also due to the teachers influence, students of middle to upper class would learn the attitude of unconcern and accusation when they had to ‘do all the work themselves’.

It did not help my case that I would move schools so regularly as I would come to a new school were teachers would automatically regard me as one of the ‘lazy’ group of children and would receive constant ridicule as generalized in the group, or sought out individually.

One experience of this sort stands out above the rest. I had moved to a new school at the beginning of grade 4. Once I entered grade 5 the class teacher had grouped me with her idea of the ‘lazy’ ‘unproductive’ children who would always make ‘excuses’ for their ‘poor’ work. She seemed to derive great joy from praising the students who were exemplary in these assignments and then turning on us lesser fortunate children and ridicule, reprimand, and discipline us either as a group or point us out individually.

One day we were informed by the teacher that there was an ‘unofficial’ assignment we were to be given in which we were to be placed in groups of 3, which she would assign. The assignment was, looking back, not only ridiculous but also extremely unfair. We were to set out and bring ingredients to make pizzas from scratch; we would make the dough on our own, bring ingredients for the topping and then see them baked in a fire wood oven the school had rented for the purpose. I, as luck would have it; was placed in a group with two white females of the upper-middle social class. They were extremely enthusiastic about it and discussed making an elaborate pizza with ‘all the works’. I sat in silence as they talked about and planned this, practically forgetting I was there; until it came to assigning who was to bring what. The pizza making assignment was set for in 2 days’ time. The one girl wrote out a list for each of us and handed them to us. I was not allowed to make any suggestions, and when I tried to tell her that I couldn’t bring the ingredients I was given she brushed me off and started talking over me. When I arrived at school the next day I sought the 2 girls out. I told them I couldn’t afford to bring any of the ingredients they told me to (The ones I was meant to bring were highly extravagant such as a large block of mozzarella cheese, a pack of bacon, and a punnet of mushrooms. I had not even discussed this with my mother the previous day because I already knew what she would have said- we simply could not afford it.) This was met with extreme aggression; I was told to ‘stop making excuses’, ‘stop being selfish’, ‘it’s unfair for you to make us bring everything’, and more. I was given no choice on the matter. I did not want to go to school the next day but I was never able to feign being sick in order to skip school, also as her being a single mother who worked full time, there was no one I could stay at home with, and I was too young to be left home alone for the whole day. I had knots in my stomach; I could not find a chance to speak to the girls before the lesson. When we got to the kitchen/ stove room; I was finally able to tell them I had not brought what they told me to. They shouted and ridiculed me so loudly that the teacher came to see what it was about, when she was told that I had ‘not bothered’ to bring what I was supposed to ‘without telling them’ she became furious at me and told me she was going to, not only phone my mother about my ‘laziness’ but I would be punished with hall detention for 2 days. I was forced to help the girls make the pizza but when it was done and everyone got to sit and eat them I was told to leave the kitchen area and go back to the classroom on my own. She wouldn’t tolerate me ‘sharing in’ when I had not bothered to ‘do my part’. This had to be one of the most embarrassing experiences from primary school. I later found out that it was not an ‘unofficial’ assignment as she had said previously but was in fact in the syllabus, with marks for ‘group effort’, ‘originality’, and ‘diligence’.

In Conclusion:

The OBE syllabus was indeed the completely wrong syllabus for a developing country and could not have been put into effect at a worse time. Although some cases are in fact extreme, the general results and set work was detrimental to both race and social class differences of children. It resulted in embarrassment for lower class children, resentment forming in children from more privileged backgrounds, and an inadequate education foundation for the majority of students.

About the Author:

Carol M. Hudson, Zimbabwean born English enthusiast turned writer of scientific articles for DoMyWriting. She loves her job because it gives her the opportunity to inspire others and share your thoughts with like-minded people.